Day 10: A Book that Changed My Life

This Thirty Day Book Challenge is turning out to be significantly more, well, challenging, than I had initially thought. I have spent the last few days giving today’s topic some serious thought…

There is no one, single book that has “changed my life.” No magic moment upon reading a book that as I finished it I knew that I was forever different. What there has been, however, is a series of books, from different authors and at different times, that have forced me to look at the world, my life, my ideas and my beliefs in new and different ways. This group of books, once I really began to think about them, have quite a lot in common. They are all in some way “academic” as opposed to more popular fiction, and all have an undeniable philosophical component, although some more than others. Perhaps what the strongest common thread between all of these texts is that they have all, in their own way, helped me form my intellectual curiosities, my personal philosophical outlook, my moral and ethical grounding, and my general sense of what life should be about.

A more honest way of framing today’s post would be to admit that it’s not necessarily books that have impacted me so strongly, rather thinkers and writers. If I were to list a few, I would include as varied a group as David Hume, Carl Sagan, Thomas Kuhn, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Erwin Schrödinger, Sigmund Freud, Aldous Huxley, Charles Darwin, and Michel Foucault. If I were to count fiction as well, then I would also include Umberto Eco, Aldous Huxley again, Kurt Vonnegut, Thomas Pynchon, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, and Tom Robbins. If I included poetry, then the list would have to expand to also include William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. In other words, there is no way that I could sit and discuss a single text, or even a single author in regards to how they have changed my life.

I’ve been reading for a lifetime, and for that lifetime these thinkers and writers have had a certain and cumulative effect. They have, together, taught me to think critically and embrace reason, and to revel in questions instead of becoming entrenched in apparent answers. They have reminded me to never fail to pay attention to beauty that surrounds me, and to live curiously, openly, and passionately. They have taught me that a vigorous intellect is nothing to be ashamed of. Together they have reinforced the idea that kindness and generosity are the highest virtues, and that our significance is measured by how we love, how we think, and how our actions affect those around us. They have opened my eyes to the wonders of this universe, as well as the magnificence of our minds and our hearts. In short, they set me on the path to become the woman who I am, and every time I read anything by these scientists, writers, poets, and thinkers, I see a little of myself reflected in their words.

Of course, this list is by no means exhaustive as there are authors whose influence, although subtle, was nevertheless significant, and other authors who as a result of time have simply been forgotten, although their impact surely remains. Morevoer, and perhaps most importantly, I have not stopped reading. I encounter writers, historians, scientists, and philosophers who, on a daily basis, push me out of my intellectual comfort zone and cause me to rethink my ideas and question my realities, and I hope that this will forever be the case.

Darwin’s Birds

Another Darwin Week (yes, now it’s a week) post.



These illustrations were not drawn by Darwin:

“The accompanying illustrations, which are fifty in number, were taken from sketches made by Mr. Gould himself, and executed on stone by Mrs. Gould, with that admirable success, which has attended all her works.”


My apologies! And thank you to Michael Barton for letting me know!

A while back, I wrote a post about Ernst Haeckel and his beautiful illustrations, and it is only fitting that now, during our celebration of Darwin week, that his illustrations be featured, as well. Although Darwin was not quite the artist that Haeckel was, his illustrations, especially the birds he drew in his The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle (1839) have always seemed very beautiful to me, and the care with which he illustrated them is reflected later, in the way that he elegantly explained his theories in his Origin of Species.

I found these images here, where you can find more of his birds, as well as many of his other illustrations and publications.

Dawkins on Darwin

In further celebration of Darwin Day (yes, this may go on all week), I want to share the first of a series of videos by Richard Dawkins titled The Genius of Charles Darwin. As Dawkins states at the very start,

I want to show you how Darwin opened our eyes to the extraordinary reality of our world.


Tree of Life

In continuation of Darwin’s birthday celebration, I wanted to pass this along.

Darwin, in his Origin of Species, not only provided an elegant explanation of the variety of life on this planet, but began to illustrate how life is connected. Since then, advances in the biological sciences have continued to provide evidence for the interconnectedness of all life, and is illustrated here, in this “Tree of Life.”

For more information, and for a larger poster-sized .pdf of this diagram, visit the BBC.

Sunday Funnies #6

Happy Darwin Day, from Calamities of Nature.

Happy Darwin Day!

Happy Birthday, Mr. Darwin!

Happy Darwin Day, everyone!

A global celebration of science and reason.

Today more than ever, when anti-science has become a veritable movement in America (think anti-evolution, global warming denial, anti-vaccination), it is important that we commemorate the lives of the people, like Charles Darwin, who changed the course of our history through the use of reason and my expanding our scientific understanding of the world around us.

In our own celebration of Darwin Day, and of science and reason, my daughter and I are taking a trip to our local science museum. If you’re interested in commemorating this man’s birthday, you can go to the International Darwin Day Foundation and see if there are any activities in your area, and I’ve included this video to help us all celebrate. It’s a TED talk by Dennis Dutton where he discusses a Darwinian theory of beauty. Not only is it a fascinating topic, but its animated by Andrew Park, of RSA Animate.

Enjoy! And Happy Darwin Day!

Human Zoos and the Mismeasure of Man

If the misery of our poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

This line from Charles Darwin’s famous work, Voyage of the Beagle, is both epigraph and theme of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man, which is, in short, is a well-argued and well-written refutation of scientific racism and biological determinism.

I first read the book when it was published around fifteen years ago, but my interest in it was recently rekindled when I read about a museum exhibit that recently opened in Paris  at the musée du quai Branly. This exhibit titled “Human Zoos: The invention of the savage,”

… unveils the history of women, men and children brought from Africa, Asia, Oceania and America to be exhibited in the Western world in circus numbers, theatre or cabaret performances, fairs, zoos, parades, reconstructed villages or international and colonial fairs. The practice started in the 16th Century royal courts and continued to increase until the mid-20th Century in Europe, America and Japan.

…Through 600 items and the screening of many film archives, the exhibition shows how this type of performance, when used as propaganda and entertainment, has fashioned the Western perspective and deeply influenced a certain perception of the Other for nearly five centuries.

In chapter four of Mismeasure of Man, Gould writes about how the introduction of evolutionary theory in the nineteenth century transformed the way Europeans looked at issues pertaining to race. Although racism was not new, the scientific justification for it was, if not entirely new, at least given greater weight. For example, Ernst Haeckel*, through his recapitulation theory (“ontology recapitulates phylogeny”) maintained that an individual, through its own growth, passed through a series of stages that each represented adult ancestral forms in the order in which we passed through them, in other words, that “an individual, in short, climbs its own family tree.” Haeckel’s theory would provide the backbone of many scientific theories of racism, allowing “scientists” and thinkers such as Vogt, Cope, and, of course, Herbert Spencer, creator of “Social Darwinism,” to provide quantitative and scientific substantiation for their various racial classification and ranking systems. Spencer summarized recapitulation in 1895:

The intellectual traits of the uncivilized . . . are traits recurring in the children of the civilized.

That other, non-European races were “just like children” was no longer simply a bigoted adage, it now represented a scientific belief that “inferior people” were literally not as evolved as superior (white, European) groups. It provided a seemingly scientific justification for that ever-present Victorian paternalism that was epitomized in Rudyard Kipling’s poetic apology of white, European supremacy, “White Man’s Burden.” 

Take up the White Man’s Burden

send forth the best ye breed

go, Bind your sons to exile

to serve the captive’s need:

To wait, in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild-

Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half devil and half child.

Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris

Victorian “scientific” ideas of race provided a firm ground from which to justify colonial expansion and European imperialism. These ideas also provided a rationalization for what would emerge next, ethnological expositions, or human zoos. Although the practice of placing humans on display was as old as our contact with other cultures, the nineteenth century practically institutionalized the it through these expositions, which became increasingly popular in Europe and North America during this time. From London, to Paris, to Chicago, non-white people were being displayed and exploited for the entertainment and “edification” of those in attendance.

A French print entitled "La Belle Hottentot," depicting Saartjie Baartman. The European observers remarks include "Oh! God Damn what roast beef!" and "Ah! how comical is nature."

Individuals such as Saartjie Baartman (the Hottentot Venus), whose body was exhibited and studied throughout Europe during her life, and dismembered and still displayed after death, is perhaps one of the most recognizable examples of this practice, as is perhaps Ota Benga, the pygmy that was kept on display at New York’s Bronx Zoo, and whose short life ended in suicide.  Of personal interest (and subject of an upcomming post) is “Little Egypt,” who was featured in 1893 at the Egyptian Theater in the World’s Columbian Exposition Midway in Chicago. At the time she was objectified and was the source of lewd curiosity, but she was also the one responsible for introducing what would eventually be recognized as Belly Dance to the West.

For Europeans and North Americans, their experiences with this kind of objectification and exhibition of human beings, paired with the pseudo-scientific theories of race that gained much popularity during the nineteenth century shaped their perceptions of both themselves and whatever was conceived as “the other.” Although this aspect of our collective history is, and should be, a source of shame, it should not be forgotten, as we have not rid ourselves of the cultural “baggage” that we acquired during that time. While the current exhibition at the quai Branly museum has had its share of controversy, it does serve as an important reminder of where many of our destructive ideas pertaining to race have come from. As echoed in the line by Darwin that I started this post with, our institutions have shaped our ideas of “otherness,” and have directly led to our current bigoted and prejudiced views. Our sin is, in this regard, very great.

*For an excellent intellectual biography of Ernst Haeckel, take a look at Robert J. Richards’ The Tragic Sense of Life: Haeckel and the Struggle Over Evolutionary Thought. I read it several months ago and loved it.